How a multimedia juggernaut called Snøhetta is driving design worldwide and incidentally changing our perception of collaboration on an equal footing. An interview with founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen.
Snøhetta is an out-of-the-ordinary architect’s office and the creative force behind globally acclaimed cultural edifices including the Oslo Opera (Norwegian National Opera & Ballet), Lillehammer Art Museum, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Snøhetta is a cultural supertanker, carrying in its hold a kind of matrix for our age: a crew of mixed teams from 32 different countries, made up of industrial designers, architects, graphic designers, sociologists and landscapers, all working on the texture of the world around us. The various strands of their work take the form of parallel, non-linear processes in five locations around the world, autonomous and largely free from hierarchies. Snøhetta thus extends far beyond any conventional idea of architecture.
Our style is to have no style, says co-founder and gallery owner (www.r-o-m.no) Thorsen, even if investors would perhaps prefer it otherwise. Everything is created from scratch and on the spot. Others who propagate bottom-up solutions often do little more than scatter items of signature architecture over a slew of destinations; Snøhetta takes the road less travelled, visiting locations, listening and involving before decisions are taken by the whole team.
No wonder the resulting works are such hybrids. These are buildings that are not simply an opera house, say, but simultaneously a public place, a skate park or a destination for a Sunday outing with the family. Take the example of Alexandria, where fans of the library protected the building during the riots out of a profound awareness of what had been created there: a phenomenon extending beyond books and catalogues, a place of transformation that unlocks spaces of freedom and connects Egypt with the world.
With versatility as its driving principle, it’s only logical for Snøhetta to design Norway’s new banknotes or trial Europe’s first underwater restaurant, develop interiors for concept store YME (www.ymeuniverse.com), and produce trade show architecture and even cutlery sets (www.snohetta.com/projects/411-barr-cutlery-set). These are tools of change; some clearly visible, some subcutaneous, but all effective.
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav (Den Kongelige Norske Sankt Olavs Orden), brings an attitude of forensic focus to our interview. The motto of the Order, RET OG SANDHED (Justice and Truth) could have been devised by him. But his personal maxim is even more trenchant: working on creating a better world. Few can claim this and retain their credibility, but Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is one of them.
Would you call yourself an optimist?
Yes. In our profession you have to be.
Architecture always seems to deal with tomorrow. What was your vision of the future when you started the company in 1987?
If you look at the long-term perspective of change we are dealing with, because the time span of a project is quite substantial just imagine the library in Alexandria taking twelve to thirteen years from idea to realisation it’s quite obvious that some of the ideas we have today have to be projected into a possible future. Otherwise the project will already be outdated the very day it is completed. In the end this means taking the combination of looking at a place, its history, its topography, its climate and its culture, and then trying to project that into some sort of understanding of the future, which then creates the relevance for the project on the day it opens.
And if you think back to 1987 in general we still had the Cold War, didn’t we?
We did. When we started in 1987 we were a mixture of landscape architects and architects. So one of our visions at a very early stage was to combine more than one profession into a practice. At that particular point in time, I would say there was very little awareness about public space and how the public per se should interact with the immediate surroundings of buildings. Because of this, budgets were usually for the buildings only. And we wanted to change the status of integrated professions, trying to look more at the totality of things, away from object-related planning and design issues and instead striving to integrate more professions and produce more holistic solutions. That was really the starting-point.
Transdisciplinary working that combined architecture, product and graphic design, landscape architecture and sociology was quite unusual at that time, wasn’t it?
It was completely unusual. I think that as we’ve developed over the last 30 years, we have been able to integrate even more professions. What we are seeing right now is the huge effect of getting different professions to pull together in certain directions and, by doing that, also informing the other professions about what they are doing. You need to work with more than your own profession before you can see the problem from two different positions, or three, or four …
Would you say there is a specific Nordic way of communicating that helped you bring together different combinations of people in order to solve complex problems?
There are certain elements in the post-war development of social democracies that have engaged project thinking about education. At the same time, there has also been change starting with the oil industry, where certain areas of specialisation became so important that the overall view of things almost started to disappear. So to some extent I should probably say yes and no. However, since the mid-eighties we have seen a lot of knowledge-based industries commit to becoming increasingly broadly based as they searched beyond their borders to establish a better knowledge base for the decisions they were going to make. This more horizontal, more bottom-up thinking that emerged from social democracy definitely influenced how businesses are organised, especially in the knowledge industry. Don’t forget Norway is a small country; we’re more like a mid-sized city. Lines of communication between people, decision-makers and politicians are very short.
You’ve always been international. Is it getting harder to communicate since you’ve set up offices all over the world?
We basically established these offices based on a certain degree of autonomy in the various places, so we’ve become more and more aware of being partners, of contextualising in the place where we are. That doesn’t mean we’re not being challenging or experimenting with certain elements where we are, but it means we have to do it with a certain level of insight and maybe, in certain situations, also with a certain level of pragmatism. In a way, we have established different practices to enable us to gain deeper and better insights into the environment in which we are actually working. For more or less the first 15 years, we were sort of a hit-and-run-company. The hit-and-run aspect was that we went in, we did one project and we pulled out. That didn’t seem to be a good long-term strategy. Given this, it also seems a much better idea to be locally represented in the places where we are actually working to get to know the culture in a deeper and better way, gain a richer understanding of the challenges presented by a place. A strikingly different approach to the blanket globalisation of the construction industry.
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